India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
Recently, an acquaintance of PT Usha was visiting Jakarta and wandered to a tourist shopping hub. A shopkeeper was curious about the country of origin. When the person replied India and Kerala, the next question was: So you know PT Usha? 'Yes' was the reply.
Immediately a discount was offered with a few freebies thrown in.
“Even after all these years, people I know sometimes use my name when they go to Jakarta. They even get things for free. I don't encourage them but it is a nice feeling that people remember you fondly and with respect for something which happened in 1985,” Usha says after narrating the experience of the Indian traveller.
For those at the Senayan Madya Stadium in the Indonesian capital in late September of 1985, the Asian Athletics Championships remain etched in memory because of a 21-year-old from India who won five gold and a bronze in just five days.
Who knows, that shopkeeper may have been in the stands to witness the feat.
Gold medals came in the 100 metres, 200, 400, 400 metre hurdles and 4x400 metre relay, a haul unmatched by any Indian athlete at a continental championship till date. Usha set Asian records in the sprint events and the 400m as the whole of Asia was left spellbound by her medal-winning spree.
Usha begins by describing how she bagged the least talked- about medal, a bronze in the 4x100 metre relay. “When I got the baton for the anchor leg, the Indian team was in sixth place. The commentator was talking about the baton exchange and saying that India has PT Usha so the team could win a medal. It was really satisfying to get the team from sixth place to third and win a bronze. Remember, this was India's first medal in the 4x100 metre relay," Usha says about the start of a golden era for track and field in this country.
Athlete PT Usha. (Express archive photo)
This was a period when cricket fever was fast gripping the nation. Two years after Kapil Dev led India to the 1983 World Cup glory, Sunil Gavaskar's side lifted the World Championship of Cricket in Australia. In 1987, India hosted the 50-over World Cup, an event that marked the beginning of the shift of the game's power centre from its traditional bastions to the sub-continent. Cricketers had become household names yet one woman didn't let them hold sway.
“I didn't just run one event at one championship and win a medal. It was not a flash in the pan. Right through the 80s and for over a decade, I won gold medals for India. I peaked from 1984 onwards. To win gold after gold and medal after medal at the Asian Games, the Asian Championships and at Grand Prix events in Europe was no mean feat. It was a wonderful period for Indian athletics and, if I may say so, I was to a large extent responsible for track and field being as popular as cricket in India back then. Jakarta was the start of the golden period,” Usha says.
In Jakarta, just over a year after she missed out on a bronze medal in the 400 metres hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics, Usha established herself as a great despite the great mental and physical strain of running over a dozen competitive races in just five days. There was no recovery expert by her side, no physio or masseur to help relax sore muscles. Her coach OM Nambiar was her guide and the man with multiple tasks.
When Usha was drained after running the heats and the semifinals of two separate events within a span of 30 minutes, she recharged herself with a cold shower in a bathroom at the stadium. There were no protein shakes to gulp down for recovery those days.
“On one day, I ran three races. After a race, I would run to the bathroom and have a shower and be ready for the next race. There was nothing fancy I followed as a routine. Run, rest, have a wash, and run again. Nowadays, there are experts you can turn to. If one part of your body is hurting, you can get a quick massage. I didn't need all that back then. But you had to be mentally strong, ignore the aches and pains and, of course, listen to your coach. It sounds simple, but it was not easy,” Usha adds.
Over three days, she ran 11 races, including heats, in Jakarta’s humidity.
The historic medal haul would not have come about, if she had listened to the coach of Filipino star Lydia de Vega. Lydia was coached by her father who went up to Usha and Nambiar and told them that an athlete was allowed to compete in just three events. Francisco had hoped Usha would drop out of the 100 metres — the event in which it was neck and neck between his daughter and the Indian athlete — and instead focus on the 400 metre hurdles and two other events. However, they didn't take the bait.
Lydia was the fastest woman in Asia and the winner of the 100 metres gold at the New Delhi Asiad three years ago, where she had beaten Usha. For the two athletes, it wasn't just any 100 metres race, Usha recalls, “it was about pride and being the best in Asia.”
“Coach Nambiar told me to run the first three events. The first event was the 100 metres in which I won gold (11.64 seconds). And then it was the 400 metres and the 400 metre hurdles. Later we realised that there was no rule that said an athlete can participate in just three events. Luckily, we didn't listen to Lydia's father.”
In the 100 metres, Lydia finished third, pipped by Thailand’s Ratjai Sripet. With her toughest competitor vanquished, the path ahead for Usha was relatively easy.
PT Usha. (Express archive photo)
“It was only in the 100 metres that I had competition from Lydia. In the rest of the races, my confidence was sky high. I was sure I could win gold medals.”
During the Asian Athletics Championships, Usha realised how popular she had become. Every time she stepped onto the track, the stadium resounded with her name. Missing out on an Olympic medal by one-hundredth of a second had brought her fame, but what she experienced in Jakarta was “unbelievable”. At the Seoul Asian Games a year later - where she bagged four gold and a silver - her popularity would surge to new heights.
“I was more popular than the local athletes in Indonesia. Hearing my name being cheered at a packed stadium really boosted me further. I always knew that I would win medals in all the events I had entered in. I was in such good form. In Jakarta, I realised that even spectators expected me to win.”
Crystal Palace getaway
The foundations of the success at the Asian meet were laid at the leafy Crystal Palace Sports Training Centre in South London a few months earlier. Back in the day, it wasn't the norm for Indian athletes to shift their training base abroad and take their personal coaches along. But when the opportunity knocked, Usha made the trip along with Nambiar.
“It was the first time I had travelled abroad to train. This was a new experience but I enjoyed it,” Usha says. She also didn't mind the change in diet and weather.
“It was windy and cold on some days yet we adjusted to the conditions and trained hard. I also took a liking to the English breakfast. I loved the bacon there. It was so juicy and tasty that I looked forward to breakfast. Eggs, toast, bacon and the salads, I hogged that. For dinner, I used to find an Indian restaurant and have tandoori chicken and rice. When I finished my stint in Crystal Palace, my haemoglobin levels were much higher compared to what it was before I left India.”
Another advantage of moving her training base was that it was easier to travel to Grand Prix events in Europe where some of the best athletes were competing. Usha ran in events at Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Ostrava and London, winning medals including a 400 metre hurdles gold at the Coca-Cola Cup in London. Her consistency earned her a berth in the Grand Prix final, an event for which only the best athletes on the circuit are invited.
Usha, though, chose to focus on the Asian Athletics Championships and headed back to India to train.
"By the end of my training in Crystal Palace and after all the competitions in Europe, I felt I was in really good form. I had done well in Europe and at the Olympics but now I wanted to excel in Asia.”
When Usha hung up her spikes, she had won 23 medals at the Asian Athletics Championships with 14 gold.
In 2008, she travelled with her most famous trainee Tintu Luka to Jakarta for the Asian Junior Championships. “Jakarta had changed a lot but what I achieved in that city can never be erased.”